What Causes Binge Eating? 5 Reasons Why You Can't Stop Eating
Binge eating can be a frightening experience. When you are struggling with it you feel completely out of control; as if some other part of you has taken over and you can’t seem to stop eating. Some people describe a sense of dissociation or zoning out. Your brain doesn’t seem to be registering that you’re full until after the food has gone or when you feel ill.
Why is it that you are experiencing this chaotic eating and why can’t you seem to stop it? In this post I wanted to cover the main reasons binge eating develops to help you understand what may be keeping you stuck.
1. Dietary restraint – we know that dieting, or attempting to significantly restrict your food intake can trigger binge eating episodes. Makes sense right? You have an appetite system whose job it is to make you eat. When it senses you aren’t getting enough energy and/or nutrients, it ramps up your hunger. When you fight your hunger it fights back. Eventually biology wins and out-of-control eating ensues.
2. Planning to restrict – so you know that restriction causes binge eating, but did you know that even planning to restrict/diet can lead to binge eating episodes. It’s called last supper eating. When you believe that tomorrow (or Monday!) you are giving up certain foods or quantities of foods, what happens between now and then? You eat as much of them as you can. At the height of my binge eating I was always promising that tomorrow I would ‘do better’. I was anticipating restraint and loss of freedom around food and I ended up having last supper binges almost every day!
3. Emotional regulation – certain foods in certain quantities can act like an anti-anxiety drug. By filling yourself up with food the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This is the part that calms you down and puts you in a restful state. When the brain learns that food seems to be an effective way of reducing anxiety and other overwhelming emotions it can compel you to binge in times of stress and other larger-than-life feelings.
4. Habit – Our brains often turn frequent behaviours into habits. Especially if those behaviours are linked to our reward feedback systems (which food is). This means that certain days, times and situations become linked with binge eating. Do you binge the moment your partner leaves the house? Are there TV shows that are associated with binge eating? Habits are powerful and our brains are particularly vulnerable to being habituated around food because eating is an essential part of survival.
5. Trauma – This one is a bit more complex. There is an overlap with number 3, emotional regulation, but it goes a bit deeper. If you are someone whose binge eating was triggered by traumatic experiences and if you experience flashbacks, or you get triggered into reliving the emotions of the past, filling yourself up with food can be a way of grounding yourself in the present moment and feeling safe. Binge eating became a coping mechanism, which enabled you to survive.
Many people can relate to a few of these causes. When it comes to dieting or planning to diet there may be work to do in order to undo the diet mentality that keeps you trapped. I co-host a podcast called Life After Diets where we explore how you can do this. We also talk about emotional regulation and habits too.
I know it can feel like there is a lot of work to do in order to be free from compulsive eating and I want you to know you are not alone. There is a whole community of people who are on this journey too. If you want to join a recovery group, please check out the Connect and Recover groups.